Got a constituent question? This congressman wants a text

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If you live in Arkansas’s 1st District, you can now text your member of Congress.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., is the first elected official on Capitol Hill to test a prototype of a new tool built by the OpenGov Foundation — Article One-txt.

“At the end of the day, I believe the conversations I have with my constituents are the hallmark of our country and what was envisioned when our country was formed,” Crawford tweeted on May 10, soon after the capability launched. “I hope folks will see it the same way and participate in this new messaging system.”

Article One-txt is an extension of the OpenGov Foundation’s work with Article One, a tool the nonprofit developed to help Hill staffers deal with over-full voicemail boxes. Article One-txt is in its initial stages, but it feeds into the OpenGov Foundation’s goal of using modern technology to help members of Congress and their constituents communicate more effectively.

Sara Robertson, a digital media specialist with Crawford’s office, told FedScoop that the roots of Crawford’s willingness to try something new lie in the fact that he’s long been “apprehensive” about existing communication tools — namely Facebook. “He once said to me, which I think is a really good quote, ‘My goal is never to create a mass following, but to be able to connect to my constituents and make sure I’m meeting their needs.'”

Long before the dramatic Cambridge Analytica scandal, Crawford wasn’t convinced that Facebook, even with the benefits of its broad reach, is the best tool for his purpose.

So when Crawford’s office “found” the OpenGov Foundation team, and began discussing a text messaging platform, it was a perfect match. After all, “almost everyone” has the capacity to text.  Crawford went ahead and deactivated his office’s Facebook account and a new option appeared on the contact section of his website — “Text him at (870) 292-6747,” it reads.

Article One-txt is inbound only to begin — constituents must initiate a conversation with the number listed, but from there a world of possibilities opens up. It’s built using Twilio’s programmable SMS capacity. On Crawford’s side this looks like a desktop portal that the office can use to respond to constituent messages. It’s a similar user experience to, for example, iMessage for desktop.

Depending on the constituent inquiry, Robertson said, the office might text back an answer or a link to more information. The tool also allows her to tag the constituent’s number based on the subject matter they’re interested in — for example, veterans affairs or agriculture or what to do on a visit to D.C.

This capability is key, Robertson reiterated again and again. The “dream,” she said, is to be able to send out issue-based messages specifically to a list of constituents who have expressed interest in hearing more about that issue. These might include messages about an upcoming vote on an area of concern to the constituent, an alert for staffer availability at office hours in the (very spread out) district and more.

For now the functionality of Article One-txt is “still very basic,” but that’s ok, Robertson told FedScoop. It’s a prototype, after all. “We really don’t know what constituents are going to use it for most,” she said. A testing period over the next month or so will be used to further validate texting as a solution for constituent engagement and explore what kind of features the ideal solution would ultimately possess.

“We’re just really, really excited about this,” Robertson added. “I know my boss is excited because this is something we’ve been looking into for a few months now so he’s excited that it’s in action and we’re excited to see where it goes from here.”

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Article One, Article One-txt, Capitol Hill, Congress, OpenGov Foundation, Rep. Rick Crawford